'Ghost Alzheimer’s’ in Ali Smith’s Hotel World and Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black

Authors: Henesy, M.

Conference: International Conference on Narrative

Dates: 27-29 June 2013


The aim of this paper is to discuss Ali Smith’s and Hilary Mantel’s use of ghosts in their novels, and how this inclusion of the supernatural allows them to explore the concepts of memory and identity. Both authors present ghosts’ memories as limited and subject to degeneration in a way that mirrors dementia in the living, and they both present the frustration that accompanies this deterioration. The ghosts’ desire to recollect and reconnect with what they have lost, and in turn the restrictive and obsessive hauntings that they subject their survivors to, cause the living characters to question their past. Traumatic events are presented as catalysts which distort the characters’ understanding of their own identities and life choices. The ghosts act as a broken reminder of those events as well as what went before the events occurred.

Although the techniques and themes discussed here recur in other novels by the same writers, this paper will look particularly at Smith’s Hotel World and Mantel’s Beyond Black. In both novels the ghosts are presented as real entities, not just as suggested explanations for occurrences, and in both examples the reader is given an insight into their thought processes, regrets and desires. Smith and Mantel juxtapose the characters who have a future and the ghosts who merely represent the memory of what has passed, and explore the importance of personal, social and family memory in establishing one’s identity. While some try to remember to allow themselves to move on, others are desperate to forget to avoid the pain that memory brings. Exploring these issues allow both writers to discuss aspects of memory and identity which have been widely politicised in recent years; from PTSD to dementia, sexuality to fatigue syndrome, class divisions to spirituality and religion.

Source: Manual